Can Switzerland Really Host a ‘Sustainable’ Winter Olympic Games?

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Sustainability is one of the main pillars of a proposed Swiss bid to host the Winter Games in 2030. It will be difficult to pull off.  

In October, Swiss Olympic, the umbrella organisation for Swiss sports, unveiled its vision External linkfor Switzerland to become the first “host country” in the history of the Winter Games. So far, only cities and regions have played host but never an entire nation.  

The Swiss Sports Parliament, Swiss Olympic’s top decisional body, will decide on November 24 whether to officially launch a Swiss bid. Likely competitors include Sweden, France and Salt Lake City, the capital of the US state of Utah. The Sports Parliament is expected to back the Swiss proposal which has budgeted CHF1.5 billion ($1.66 billion) for the Games. 

Swiss Olympic hopes that by mostly using existing infrastructure across the country, they can pitch the event to the International Olympic Committee (IOC) as a sustainable showpiece. 

“This would guarantee the greatest possible sustainability and significantly reduce the organisation budget,” said an October press release. This followed an earlier announcement by Sports Minister Viola Amherd, who said she backs a Winter Olympic Games that are “sustainable, tailor-made for Switzerland and widely supported”. 

Minimum new infrastructure 

Swiss Olympic has promised that infrastructure will already be ready for 13 out of 14 Winter Olympic sports, as Switzerland has committed to hosting several World Cup events before 2030.  

“If Switzerland can avoid building new facilities and infrastructure, this will reduce the environmental footprint. However, a large part of the footprint is also visitors travelling by plane. If sustainability is taken seriously, Switzerland will need a strategy to reduce air travel,” says Martin Müller, a professor of geography and sustainability at the University of Lausanne, who has studied the Olympics Games for almost 15 years. 

And what if Switzerland cannot find a suitable speed skating venue nearby? The organisers have clearly said the plan “may still be subject to adjustments”, which could also mean a new speed skating facility may have to be built. 

“Many things have to be considered in this calculation. If the venue is government-funded, sited in a natural area that must be bulldozed and cleared, heated and powered by fossil fuels, and there is no plan to use it after the Olympics, then of course it cannot be sustainable,” says Sven Daniel Wolfe, a political and urban geographer at the federal technology institute ETH Zurich.  

Given a choice, Wolfe would rather see the event spread across the country instead of building more venues. 

“It is important to remember that Switzerland is a small country. So, spreading an event across the breadth of Switzerland is very different than spreading an event across a country the size of Brazil or Russia,” he says. 

Measuring sustainability 

In 2021, Müller and Wolfe co-authored a paperExternal link published in the journal Nature Sustainability that evaluated the sustainability of 16 Olympic Games from 1992 to 2020. They devised a set of environmental, social and economic criteria to assess how sustainable the mega-sports events were.  

Based on their criteria, the Salt Lake City Games of 2002 were the most sustainable. The US location scored highly because of above-average scores across all parameters. Its economic performance was the best in the sample, and it had a very good after-use of venues and a moderate cost overrun of 24%. 

At the opposite end of the spectrum, the Sochi Games in Russia scored worst. Extensive new construction and the high number of accredited participants were to blame. It also suffered the second-highest cost overruns in the sample, while not finding meaningful after-use for most venues. 

Overall, the study’s authors had three recommendations for a more sustainable Olympic Games: downsize the event, rotate the Olympics among the same cities and create an independent body to monitor and enforce credible sustainability standards.  

Systemic problems 

A Swiss Winter Olympics will face its own set of sustainability challenges. According to Swiss cable car associations, just over half of the ski slopes in Switzerland depend on artificial snow, compared to 90% in Italy, 70% in Austria and 39% in France. Generating artificial snow accounts for 0.1% of Switzerland’s annual electricity consumption. 

“These are the inherent contradictions of winter sports in a warming climate. Switzerland will need to make a more general decision of how it deals with this challenge,” says Müller. “I see either a soft fade-out, in which case investing in the Winter Games makes no sense, or a continuation with increasing reliance on technical snow production and a need to move into higher altitudes.” 

Public support, the Achilles heel of previous Swiss Olympic bids, will be harder to win if winter sports events are perceived as damaging the environment. Critical media coverage of new ski runs being created in environmentally sensitive zones such as retreating glaciers, like the recent Zermatt-Cervinia men’s World Cup downhill races this weekend, do not help the cause. 

“Trying to host the Winter Olympics at a time when so many pistes depend on artificial snow should be a warning to everyone that we cannot conduct business as usual,” says Wolfe. “My opinion is that if an honest debate were to be held, followed by a referendum on hosting the Olympics, then the Swiss Games cannot overcome these challenges.”  

Whether it is seen as capable of overcoming these challenges will be key to the success of Switzerland’s Winter Olympics bid. There is a strong possibility that International Olympic Committee (IOC) will award the 2030 and 2034 Games at the same time (double allocation) due to climate change concerns.  

“A double allocation would bring security for the Olympic Movement in solid traditional winter sport and climate-reliable hosts until 2034, while allowing the IOC time to reflect on the long-term future of the Winter Games,” said Karl Stoss, Chair of the IOC’s Future Host Commission for the Olympic Winter Games, at the 141st IOC Session in October. 

Source : SWI